Two Pair, Ace High
"I cannot believe you allowed that gypsy to take your money, Louis," said Misha. "You are usually more careful." He laughed at the thought of Louis parting with so much as a sous on such nonsense.
"You should try it, Misha," said Vasily. "She told me intriguing things."
Vasily would not say what these were, but then he rarely disclosed anything concerning himself.
"I agree," said Louis. "She is an interesting old woman, flattering and insulting at the same time, talking in riddles and contradictions. I am to be well loved despite my despicable nature. How is that for a future?"
The young Frenchman laughed out loud, his black curls waving in the breeze of Misha’s perfect wedding day. Puffy white clouds floated over tents and marquis with pinnacle flags fluttering and guests taking their fill of only the best food and drink.
"You will begin to repopulate your family with your beautiful bride beginning tonight," said Louis. "We have avenged your poor parents and siblings and lived to see this day. Go. Talk to the gypsy. She will tell you what a lucky son of a bitch you are."
Misha allowed his friends to shove him toward one of the many entertainment tents peppered across the extensive lawns of his estate. He entered the fortune teller’s lair chuckling and took the chair before a painted low table without waiting for an invitation.
The woman had stood when he entered. Evidently, she knew who he was but said nothing, her dark wrinkled face a studied blank, and simply inclined her head in greeting. A few wisps of grey escaped the red and gold scarf she wore. Despite the heat of this summer day, she wrapped a dirty tasseled shawl closer about her as she stared into Misha’s blue eyes.
The fortune teller shuffled a stack of playing cards and indicated that he should cut.
"This is not a full deck," he said as he broke the pile in half.
"It contains only aces and face cards, my lord. You have no interest in servants."
He did not bother to correct her inaccurate address. This was all in fun, after all.
Gnarled hands turned over the new top card. The ace of diamonds. She placed it before her on the table. The queen of diamonds came next. She set it before him on the other side of the little table. Two kings surfaced and found places half-way between the diamonds: clubs on Misha’s left and hearts on his right. He found it difficult to keep a straight face as the crone pretended great solemnity in forming a cross with the last card, the queen of hearts, at the center, but it became easier to fight laughter as he watched her face. She studied the cards, registering puzzlement and dismay, fear and sorrow. He concluded that flattery would not play a large role in this charade and glowered at her dangerously.
Her black eyes held his for a long moment before she spoke.
"You are the ace of diamonds, my lord," she rasped, "well practiced at cutting your enemies like glass."
Where had she obtained this information? He lowered his brow.
She did not flinch.
"Your bride is the queen of diamonds. Also cold and sharp but without your violence. Your families think they have arranged the perfect match, but though she will give you an heir, she will cut you."
This was probably the favorite topic of speculation throughout the neighborhood. All the old woman had to do for this intelligence was listen. No matter how sharp and cold his bride might be, he intended to thoroughly enjoy the begetting of multiple heirs by the exquisite young woman he had married that morning.
"They are your friends, your champions. One light, one dark." She pointed a crooked forefinger at first the king of hearts, then the king of clubs.
Misha nearly snorted in derision. Was there anyone who did not know that he, Vasily and Louis had become a team?
Her bent frame rocked forward on her seat, as the gypsy used her chin to indicate the last card, the queen of hearts, in the center.
"There is the woman you seek, my lord. She is not well formed in my mind. I cannot tell you much. She is connected in some way to the light king, and the dark king will fight you for her."
Preposterous. He wanted to shout his scorn, but she raised her eyes to his and arrested the words in his throat.
"Time and hardship will erase this interview, my lord, until you draw the ace of diamonds in her presence. When you see the card and remember my words, look at the woman before you. She is the queen of hearts. She will save your life. Then, after more years and grievous loss, you will win her."
The witch sat back with a sigh.
"And she will save your soul."
"I am adamant," said Vasily. "She must live."
They stood in the tiny efficiency apartment speaking Polish. Misha had caught the twenty-year-old girl lying about two languages she spoke but doubted this chit understood Polish.
"Vasily," he said, "there are too many coincidences with this girl. Both of her parents are connected to us in some way, to you in particular. She may be dirty, no matter how many assurances we have been given."
"Nonetheless, I want her. I want her to live."
Misha knew that blank face carved of stone. Vasily would not budge, but he tried one more argument.
"We must use her as bait, Vasily. The operation comes first. Always. Because she is a virgin, the targets will know she is bait and kill her outright, no matter what we do."
Their discussion, sometimes heated, other times analytical, began sketching out a plan that might, only might, appease Vasily, and then finally circled back to the main obstacle, which Louis summed up in English her benefit.
"She must not be a virgin," he said.
Misha looked at the insignificant young woman. The tangled brown curls that ranged around her face only highlighted her blanched reaction to these words.
"Choose," he demanded.
Of course, she must choose Vasily, he thought. Her preference for him was as obvious as his for her. Louis had found it amusing; Misha, mystifying. She wasn’t even all that pretty. He waited for her to name her necessary lover.
"No," she said.
This was where she chose to stand firm? Misha marveled as arguing voices filled the little room. She had agreed to help them kill a band of terrorists. She had lied to them repeatedly. The girl had even violently smacked a neighborhood foe in the face with a heavy bag of books. Misha had seen the bruise. But having sex with the man she quite plainly loved in order to give herself a chance of survival was a moral bridge she would not cross? He considered that had she been older and less ignorant, there would be no problem. But then, if she were older and less ignorant, she probably would not be a virgin.
Louis found a pack of playing cards in a utensil drawer next to the tiny stove at one end of the room and handed them to Misha.
"Choose, or we draw cards," Misha said to her as he shuffled.
She refused to cut the deck. Louis drew the jack of clubs. When Vasily turned over the king of hearts, Misha did not know why it bothered him strangely, but as he stared at the ace of diamonds in his own hand, he remembered with a clarity that mimicked the reality of that day in a tent on his lawn more than a decade before. He remembered every word.
He told himself it still amounted to no more than nonsense. How could this obscure nothing of an American girl in Chicago have anything to do with his future? It was true that his wife had given him an heir and then cut him thoroughly, taking not only to a separate bedroom, but an entire suite of rooms in another wing of the house. His current mistress, whom he had installed in the village, was more willing but in an equally indifferent way.
"Choose, or we go by the cards," he said to the girl who stood trembling before him.
She shook her head.
He appreciated the irony of having his soul saved by adding yet another crime to his already vicious resume.
She had dressed again before the other two returned, but the free flow of her tears caused Vasily to meet Misha’s eyes with a questioning glance. It was no more than a glance. The two friends understood each other perfectly. No matter how much Vasily might fantasize about American girls, he knew the necessity they were under.
The operation had been fraught with coincidences and a succession of obstacles that had delayed them at every step. They were visibly exhausted and becoming noticeable to possible enemies. The team’s survival depended on a successful outcome. The girl’s survival would not be a factor in any measurement of a satisfactory result. Only the deaths of the targets counted here.
As they approached their task that night, it appeared more likely the deaths would be their own. Vasily’s girl swallowed a tiny sensor Louis gave her before her ordeal began. The targets dragged her through the basement of the skyscraper they planned to destroy, threading their way along a labyrinth of girders, packing crates, and ventilation machinery.
Louis carried a radio and wore headphones as he led the way. He held up a hand on the second turn, pointing to a sensor that had been placed by the enemy. The radio had picked up the sensor as the girl passed it. This was a trap.
I suppose, thought Misha, the old woman would say that in this way she has saved my life. It stretches believability, though.
It took some time to avoid the sensors and achieve the element of surprise. By then, the girl had suffered greatly and could barely walk as the largest of the their targets dragged her back through the labyrinth. This was the so-called knife expert, Misha knew, and thus his natural target, so he pursued them.
He caught up to them in a cul-de-sac of crates and machinery, knowing better than to try grappling with a man twenty kilos heavier and possessing a reputation for skill in a knife fight. The logical thing to do would be to shoot him, and Misha was ready, but the man held Vasily’s girl in such a way that he could not get a clear bead on anything lethal in that dim basement light. Without hesitation, he slid sideways instead, kicking the girl into a wall and out of the target’s hands and losing his gun in the process. He had just enough time to pull his knife from its sheath.
There, Crone, thought Misha. It is I who saved her life and it has cost me mine.
It was the slowed time of disaster that allowed him the luxury of an imaginary conversation with a fortune teller in the past. He and his opponent grappled on the floor. Each man held the other’s right wrist in his left hand as they both strained to prevent the other’s success and achieve his own.
Death became more certain as Misha’s position worsened with every minuscule advance of the enemy’s knife. It was not in his character to bow to inevitability. He strained on, knowing it was futile, watching the glee grow on his opponent’s face, which is why he saw the shadow and then the brown curls.
She had crawled to them, her feet being useless, and lifted something above the enemy’s head. Misha recognized his SIG Sauer semi-auto handgun. The fool held it by its barrel and brought the stock down on the skull of his opponent with all the picayune strength of a mouse. To an observer there would have been no indication that the blow changed anything. But Misha and his foe existed in the slow time before death in disaster and Misha had seen the blow coming. He was ready for the momentary distraction, the infinitesimal transfer of attention in the man about to kill him from the hand holding Misha’s wrist to the touch on his head.
He twisted his knife hand as the grip on his wrist softened, thrust the blade it held into the enemy’s lower abdomen and pulled. As he rolled the body off of himself, he sat up panting and stinking of blood and vomit. The girl sat within arm’s length, stricken with nausea. Misha held out his left hand.
"Do not ever touch my gun again," he commanded.
She handed over the weapon, just managing not to shoot him or herself accidentally.
With ignorance, incompetence and wrong-headed interference, the wench had saved his life. He silently cursed the old gypsy.
When the girl refused to come with them, he provided for her safety by instructing her in discretion with a liberal dose of virulent threats. He dealt with Vasily’s dejection by finding an excuse to return to Chicago six weeks later. They found her at church, for heaven’s sake. Louis had supplied his friend with the flowery words designed to woo a bride, most of which Vasily forgot in the moment, but it did not matter. She was as infatuated as he, saying yes almost before the last syllable of his halting question, while Louis and Misha stood in supreme awkwardness in a crowd of people who did not mask their disapproval.
The besotted couple married in Capri on their way home.
Before turning in to sleep in his empty bedchamber that night, the night of his best friend’s honeymoon with the queen of hearts, Misha sat in a wingback chair before the fire, a glass of port on the table next to him. He pulled the ace of diamonds from his wallet, meaning to throw it in the flames, and stared at it, remembering the closing words of that cursed gypsy.
"I have no soul, old witch," he had sneered.
The woman spat at the ground, disgusted.
"Then she will give you hers."
He returned the card to his wallet and drained his glass.
This story resulted from a contest prompt by Reedsy.com. The prompt was: "Write a story about someone who starts noticing the same object or phrase wherever they go." The prompt may be seen at this link: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/